A Perfect Ending for Florida Gators Basketball

“This is the way to go out. You couldn’t script this one any better. You go 18-0, you get to cut the nets down. Michael Frazier’s birthday, we all walk off the court together, kiss the floor. You know, what else could you want? This was the perfect way to end things.”

Florida Gators senior center Patric Young

Florida's four seniors celebrate setting the SEC record for conference wins in a season by going 18-0. (Phil Sandlin, AP / FR117487 AP)

Florida’s four seniors celebrate setting the SEC record for conference wins in a season by going 18-0. (Phil Sandlin, AP / FR117487 AP)

There were many story lines for the Florida Gators heading into the regular season finale versus Kentucky. Suffice it to say though that more than anything else they were chasing history and seeking perfection.

Mission accomplished.

On Senior Day when the university honored it’s four member senior class before Saturday’s game, Patric Young and the other seniors helped the Gators survive a second half charge by Kentucky leading them to a dominating 84-65 victory over the Wildcats in the process making history by becoming the first SEC team to finish 18-0 in league play.

It looked as though the Gators would easily waltz into the history books in the first half as the Gators raced out to a 22 point lead, the largest deficit Kentucky faced all season, before going into halftime up 49-28. The Gators were clicking on all cylinders using their smothering pressure defense to force turnovers and get out in transition, dominating the glass, and playing textbook offense.

“We were really good offensively, we were good at both ends,” head coach Billy Donovan said afterwards. “I thought we played well on both ends of the floor. We were unselfish, we moved it and passed it. I thought we got out on the break, we got stops. Their field goal percentage in the first half helped us get on the break. I thought we capitalized on the break. I though we played really, really well and obviously scored a lot of points there in the first half.”

Kentucky would come charging back after the intermission, however, by extending the Gator defense, driving into the lane, and crashing the boards.

“I thought we got spread out on defense and we kind of played into their hands a little bit in terms of opening up driving gaps for them and them getting the ball to the front of the rim, offensive rebounding,” Donovan said. “Then Randle and their frontcourt guys around the rim caused some problems.”

They went on a 15-0 run to get within 6 points with a little over 12 minutes to go in the game before Billy Donovan finally called a timeout to try to stop the bleeding.

“I sensed a little bit coming out of the locker room, maybe (the Gators were) a little drained,” Donovan said. “I knew Kentucky was going to make a run. They’re too talented not to. Give them credit they battled and fought their way back in there.”

After the timeout, Scottie Wilbekin stepped up with a huge three point shot which stopped a 15-0 Wildcat run and allowed the Gator faithful to finally breathe again. From there, the Gators went on a 24-13 run to extend the lead back out to 17 after Wilbekin hit another huge three and by then it was all over but the shouting.

“Scottie stepped up and knocked down a big three,” Donovan said. “Got the lead back to nine. We made a couple of plays we got it back up to double digits. It pretty much stayed between twelve and thirteen for a few minutes. And then we got some stops and we obviously were able to open the game up there in the second half.”

Patric Young led the Gators with a season high 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 1 block. Prather and Wilbekin, who played only limited minutes in the first half due to the foul trouble, made amends in the second half. Prather wreaked havoc in the paint with his quickness and athleticism while Wilbekin hit some huge perimeter shots and was an effective facilitator in the second half.

After Kentucky had closed to 6, Prather and Wilbekin combined to score 15 of the next 17 points to take back control of the game. Prather finished with 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal while Wilbekin chipped in 13 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists.

“I can’t believe we got it done,” Prather said. “I was just so excited. It speaks volume about our character, our toughness, our will to get better. I’m just so happy we got it done tonight.”

Adding, “It’s very special because it shows we really want this for ourselves and for this program. And I feel like with the players on this team we weren’t going to allow a run to beat us.”

Senior leadership taking over for the Gators in the second half on Senior Day. You couldn’t script it any better. Asked about the second half play of his seniors leading the Gators when Kentucky made their charge Donovan responded,

“Yeah those guys answered the bell, they made some plays. And it was good because, in the huddle, as Kentucky made a run, the right things were being said. And there was a focus in their eye of next play, we’re fine, let’s get this stop, let’s have a good possession here. I think the right things were being said in terms of their communication with each other.”

While it was the seniors who took over in the second half, it was the Gators youthful bench, led by freshman Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith, which provided quality minutes in the first half helping the Gators on their big first half run by putting up 20 points collectively, 11 from Finney-Smith.

“I think it says a lot for what Kasey did running our team and the other guys that stepped up because we had to battle through some foul trouble with Prather, Scottie two of our seniors. DeVon Walker played well with two fouls. I thought we had a good contribution from our entire team there in that first half battling through some foul difficulty.”

Freshman Kasey Hill had perhaps his best game as a Gator, particularly in the first half with Wilbekin on the bench, running the Gator offense to perfection using his quickness and athleticism to get into the lane and showing his elite passing skills getting the ball to open shooters off the double team. He finished with 8 points, 7 assists, and a steal.

“I thought it was Kasey Hill’s best game by far that he’s had here,” according to Donovan. “I thought he was aggressive, he was physical, he was tough. He played with a motor, he played with energy. I think being a young kid he had to learn a lot. He missed a few games because of his groin. But Scottie goes out with two fouls, I think we’re up by seven at that point, and Kasey ran our team and allowed me to keep Scottie on the bench without putting him in harm’s way of getting his third.”

The Gators won the battle of the boards 32-27, against a bigger Wildcat lineup and they finished with 20 assists against only 10 turnovers an amazing 2-1 assist to turnover ratio. That’s a welcome sign for the Gators for a team that had struggled in that area earlier in the season.

“I think our assist numbers are getting up there again which I like to see,” Donovan said. “It’s been now about three games in a row where we’re getting between 16 and 20 assists per game. The ball is moving, we’re utilizing each other well. “

Despite the huge first half, Donovan warned at halftime not to get complacent, that Kentucky would fight back and make a game of it in the second half and his players took it to heart. The Gators won as they have all season, by remaining poised in the face of adversity and fighting through and surviving the big Kentucky run.

“Yeah, we did (believe Donovan),” Scottie Wilbekin said. “We jumped out early on them. We were able to make some threes, get some turnovers, fast break points, and in the second half they did a good job of scoring, I think they had nineteen points in the first ten minutes. And like we’ve always done this year we tried to fight through, weather the storm, and just push through to the end of the game.”

The senior day festivities were highly emotional for the four seniors who are second on the all time career wins list with 113 four behind Walter Hodge’s 117. It was a great emotional send off for both the players and the fans who have built a strong relationship with these guys over their last four years.

“Our fans since I’ve been here in eighteen years,” according to Donovan, “that was one of the greatest send offs I’ve ever seen for a senior class since I’ve been here. And our fans deserve a lot of credit for that. And I’m thankful and I’m appreciative.’

“The one moment where we were all standing when we had our jerseys holding them up,” said Wilbekin. “I got a little emotion. If it had went for a couple of more seconds I might have shed a tear.”

Donovan had warned about not getting too caught up in the emotions of the festivities and allow it to distract them from the task at hand.

“We’ve got to be able to block out all those distractions,” Donovan said. “You cannot allow yourself emotionally to get yourself drained.”

adding, ” I can only imagine what those guys are feeling like, the four of them standing there, as everybody’s cheering for them, and now they have to go back into the locker room and now get ready to play. That’s a challenge, that’s a challenge.”

For their part, they were able to fight through those emotions and make the best of the last home game of their Gators career. They saved the emotions for after the game kneeling together to kiss the floor of the O’Connell Center where they made so many lasting memories over the last four years but on which they’ll never compete again before walking off together one last time.

“When you invest four years. like these guys have invested, it means something to them. They’re going to carry this with them the rest of their lives. They’re going to have their children and they’re going to come back here and they’re going to be remembered for what they’ve done. They’ve done something that has not happened here before. It has not happened in our league before. And to me there were a lot of emotions and I’m proud of the way they handled themselves leading up to this game.”

The players are rightfully proud of their accomplishments as well, but the full magnitude of what they did hadn’t yet fully sunk in.

“I won’t say I don’t think it’s a big deal but it hasn’t hit me yet,” Will Yeguete said. “I think we’ve been working for it for a long time but we’ve just like been winning games, we’ve been winning. But I think we’ll look back on it in a little while we’ve actually done something really special, we’ve really made history. I love those guys, I love being out here, great coaching staff. We’re just having fun, it’s fun playing on this team.”

With the victory, the Gators finished the regular season 29-2, 18-0 in the SEC, and extended their overall winning streak to 23 games as well as their home winning streak to 32 games, all of which are school records. It’s a culmination of a lot of hard work and focused determination for a team and a senior class which faced so much adversity not only this season but throughout their career.

“It’s pretty cool, it’s pretty cool,” Patric Young said. “We’ve been accomplishing a lot of things this year, but that’s the result from the hard work and everything we’ve invested earlier in this year whether it’s the strong man training, the individual instruction, the going to class, the getting to know each other better. All that stuff, this is the fruit of all that hard work and whatnot.”

They’re not done, however, with the upcoming SEC tournament and then the NCAA tournament, the Gators have much higher goals still ahead of them.

“Celebrate this (18-0 record) because what it was was really, really special and I don’t want anything to take away from what these guys have accomplished up to this point in time,” Donovan said. “But we’re going to really, really need to get emotionally, physically, and mentally recharged again and not live in this for the next week and walk into Atlanta living in it. We’ve got to be able to put this now behind us. Now’s not the time, they need to enjoy this, but they need to come back inspired to take on the next challenge in playing in a conference tournament on Friday.”

Conference tournament notwithstanding, the Gators have even loftier goals as they shoot for the ultimate prize an NCAA tournament championship.

“No I don’t think it’s mission accomplished. We’re in the right direction right now because the ultimate goal is to be national champions. I think we’re going in the right direction right now. It’s good we can sit back and say yeah we’ve accomplished something. But the sun’s going to hopefully come back up tomorrow and then we’ve got to get back to work.”

Get back to work. That’s been perhaps the best trait of this team, their ability to get back to work and focus on the next task at hand. Whether it’s been big wins, close wins, or tough losses, this team has been able to forget about the last game and quickly focus on the next one. No time to let their guard down now.

“I talked to them a little bit,” Donovan said. “I think obviously I try to move to the next thing, but I do think you can learn from the past. If you go back and as great as Noah and Horford and those guys were, and they did some unbelievable things here, you can point to those guys clinching an SEC championship and kind of limping to the finish line so to speak, where they dropped three out four, three out of five those two years. And then obviously once post season started they kind of rebooted themselves and played at an unbelievable level both years. I use that as an example a little bit. As good as those guys were and as talented as they were, if you don’t come ready to play, this is what happens.”

The mantra of this team throughout this season has been striving for greatness. According to Donovan, it’s all about getting better every day and striving to be the best you can be.

“I use this term all the time like striving or chasing greatness, I think people sometimes think I mean in terms of SEC championships or undefeated seasons. That’s not what it is, it’s can we be the best we can be today. And then we’re going to let the results fall where they may.”

This team embodies that mantra as good as any prior Donovan coached team.

“Can we chase being the best we can be?” queried Donovan. “In order to do that I think you have to have everybody bought into trying to do that. And I think that they’ve rallied around that. This is a unique and special team, how good can we be and let’s not leave anything left on the table. And let’s be as good as we possibly can. What you want to do as a coach I think is have your team play as close as you possibly can to your ability, your potential. And I think this team has done that. Are we perfect all the time? No. The record says we’re perfect in the league, but we’re not perfect, we’ve had some bad games, we’ve had some games we haven’t played very well. But I don’t think as a coach I could be any prouder of a team striving to be better and better each day.”

For now, however, the Gators will enjoy the win, enjoy the record, and bask in the glow of accomplishing something no Gator team and no prior team in SEC history has ever done.

“Right now we’re just trying to enjoy ourselves right now,” Yeguete said. “We worked pretty hard to accomplish this and right now we just want to celebrate for a little bit. Next we’ll go back and get ourselves ready and just another game. When the time comes you just want to make sure you’re ready to go.”

For sure, there are goals still out there and the Gators will get back to work on Monday as they have all season. But for now, it was the perfect ending of a perfect conference regular season. It ended, according to Scottie Wilbekin,

“The perfect way. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Indeed.

Florida Gator Basketball: History in the Making-17 and 0 With One to Go

The Gators four senior leaders have persevered and now stand on the verge of SEC history. (gatorzone)

The Gators four senior leaders have persevered and now stand on the verge of SEC history. (gatorzone)

What a ride!

This season, this senior class, what a marvelous, fantastic, exciting, and exhilarating ride it and they have provided for Gator fans and alumni alike.

This Gator team has crafted a season for the ages that has all but made their fickle fans forget about the Florida Football Flop of 2013. At what was formerly considered a football school, head coach Billy Donovan has crafted a basketball program that other programs have modeled themselves after. Even the student section, now known as the Rowdy Reptiles but which used to be an afterthought at basketball games, is being looked upon as a model for other schools to build their fanbase upon. But it’s this team, this senior class which is doing things which have never been done before in Gainesville. Not even the 2005-06 and 2006-07 teams which won back to back NCAA tourneys have done some of the things this team and senior class have done.

Start with a 22 game consecutive win streak, move along to a 31 game home victory streak, a 28-2 overall record, and a 17-0 conference record. All school records for sure and then consider that this senior class has won three out of four SEC titles and it’s obvious this team, this group of four seniors, is special. Very special. And they’re not done yet.

On Saturday in the O’Dome and before a national ESPN audience, the Gators have a chance to make SEC history becoming the first team to go 18-0 in league play. Never been done before. Not by the great Kentucky teams of the past and certainly not by any previous Gator teams. And don’t downplay that record just because they just switched to this 18 game SEC schedule two years ago after conference expansion because for almost twenty years prior to the original conference expansion in 1992, the league had ten members and they played an 18 game round robin schedule where each team played every other team twice each season. If they do indeed beat Kentucky and grab the record it will certainly be special as it will likely be a tough record to match and can never be broken unless for some odd reason the conference adds even more games to the conference schedule which is unlikely to happen.

But speaking of Kentucky, it’s only fitting that the Gators seek to set a new conference record by beating the long time blue blood of the conference. For decades upon decades, Kentucky WAS basketball in the SEC. Sure there have been good teams and good programs over the years. Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama all come to mind during different periods, but none can match the pedigree of Kentucky. Kentucky has long been known for three things: horse racing, bourbon, and Wildcat basketball.

The Gators are relative newcomers on the national college basketball scene having only made their first NCAA tournament appearance in their history 26 years ago and having only been to the tourney a few times before Billy Donovan arrived. Now they seek to not only break a record held by prior Kentucky teams, they also seek to usurp the Wildcats as THE big dog basketball program in the SEC.

Despite the Gators back to back titles in 2005-06 and 2006-07, many nationally viewed that as an aberration. A one time luck of the draw getting a talented class of role players to achieve and perhaps overachieve. But as good as that class of Gator players was, this group is continuing to achieve so much more than what those guys did, albeit without an NCAA title to boast of, at least not yet. Three out of four SEC titles has only been accomplished by one other SEC program: you guessed it-Kentucky. This class has also been to three straight Elite Eight appearances in the NCAA tourney, something unmatched by any Gator team in it’s history. They have the opportunity to make it four in a row and perhaps this is the season they put it all together and get back to the Final Four for the fifth time in school history and hopefully bring a third tourney title back to Gainesville.

But before the cart gets placed before the horse, there’s a small matter of SEC history to make. The magnitude of it is not lost on the players but the seniors have been taught well and continue to parrot their head coaches “one game at a time” mantra.

“We’ve just been trying to take it one game at a time,” senior center Patric Young said in true Billy Donovan fashion. “We have the opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before, to go 18 and 0 in conference play. And just keeping our eyes on the prize, the opportunity to do something great. To be a part of history has motivated us internally.”

Billy Donovan, for his part, is confident that his players understand what’s at stake and will not get overconfident themselves heading into the senior finale.

“I don’t think, through winning, I have seen a lot of them being overconfident and things like that,” Donovan said. “I think sometimes winning can become intoxicating where you get a false sense of really who you are. I think they’ve done a pretty good job of staying relatively grounded through all this stuff. And that’s the thing I think that’s made them really good.

In getting to 17-0 with one to go, the Gators have done a great job of overcoming not only the adversity they’ve faced this season, which has been a long laundry list, but also they’ve overcome human nature and the odds. Winning, particularly when one starts putting a streak together, can bring it’s own sets of problems and the Gators, for the most part, have successfully avoided those pitfalls this season.

“A lot of time players don’t know how to handle success very well,” said Donovan. “And I think these guys have done a pretty good job at least up until this point of handling things well in terms of moving to the next challenge.”

They’ve done it largely due to a good combination of strong senior leadership, coachable young players, focus on the process, and strong chemistry. These guys all like each other, care for each other, help each other, push each other, and play for each other. It’s obvious if you pay any attention at all to the individuals on this team that they are close knit both on and off the court.

“Coaches have pushed us from day one,” Patric Young said. “Laid down the foundation for us to achieve what we’re doing today. We’re all bought into it. We all love each other, we all push each other, we all compete every single day in practice. We do everything it takes to become great. And just the fact that we are seeing the fruits from that and have an opportunity to go 18 and 0 in conference is just a blessing and hopefully we’ll keep our heads on straight, humble going into the game and get it done.”

Donovan added, “I’ve said this before, I don’t think that we’ve got a great margin for error. I think the one thing about these guys is they really are coachable, they try to do everything that you ask them to do. There’s a good connection inside of our team with all of them. There’s a good respect level there. The freshman understand their roles. The seniors have done a good job trying to provide leadership to the younger guys. I think winning is important to them, they’re competitive.”

They, this team and this senior group in particular, have overcome all obstacles and distractions to date. On Saturday, comes one of what could be their biggest obstacles for a team playing at home for a chance at history: Senior Night. While most might not consider that to be a distraction, they could very well be wrong. Dead wrong. Senior Night where the school honors the senior players on court before the game can create two issues for players. One, it focuses on individual accomplishments, of which there are many for this group, but which is something this team has eschewed all season. Their mantra from day one is it’s about the team and group effort. It’s never about any individual guys, how they play individually, or any personal accomplishments. It’s always about a collective group effort and how they each play their roles within the larger group framework. Turning the attention to individuals or individual accomplishments can often have the effect of distracting players from the group goals.

Secondly, Senior Night can often be oh so bittersweet for players who are forced to think about the finality of their time at this school and on this team with this group of players and coaches with whom they have all grown fond. It’s always a highly emotional time for players and certainly will be for these guys who have done so much together and for this school. Different people handle emotional situations differently and often players can become depressed or reach a low emotional state which makes it hard to maintain focus and intensity in a sport which demands it for forty minutes.

Hopefully for this group none of the above will be a real concern. Donovan is convinced it won’t be.

“I haven’t talked to them about that [Senior Night],” Donovan said. “I think the biggest thing for us right now is the same approach we’ve had for seventeen games so far. The next game’s up and get prepared for that. It’s a team we played earlier just like South Carolina. I still think there’s things in front of this basketball team as I’ve mentioned to these guys. There’s a lot of things that they can accomplish this weekend. But it’s going to be one of those things where we can’t, in my opinion, we can’t get wrapped up in the moment of it being Senior Night. Obviously those four seniors have done a lot of special things here. They’ve been to three Elite Eights, they’ve won three out of four SEC championships, they’ve done a lot of special things. And I think sometimes it’s hard for seniors to play in games like that. I’m hopeful that they can get themselves ready to get out there and play and perform. That’s the biggest thing that I’m focused on right now, is us being really emotionally ready to play on Saturday.”

Getting emotionally ready to play their last conference game, the last home game of their college career could easily be the biggest distraction of all for these guys. No matter how much one tries to prepare in advance, there really is no way to do that. That feeling of finality when they walk out onto the O’Connell Center floor could cause them to swell up in pride and it could cause them to break out in tears or worse become depressed and nervous. For certain Gator Nation is hoping none of the above happens on Saturday. Best case scenario is they come out and allow the rockin’ and boisterous home crowd to fire them up and spur them on to one final regular season victory before the SEC tournament begins next week.

If it does, there’s a great chance these guys will make history. Of course, that’s not all folks. Continuing the winning streak, winning the conference tournament, hopefully going deep into the NCAA tourney, and perhaps winning it all will certainly be the goal after Saturday. But until then there’s one more game to go before they can go down as the best team in SEC history. 17-0 with one to go and history in the making. That’s what’s on tap for these Gators this weekend.

Frazier Sets School Record, Leads Florida Gators over Gamecocks 72-46

Michael Frazier shoots one of his SEC and UF record 11 three pointers leading the Gators over South Carolina. (USATSI)

Michael Frazier shoots one of his SEC and UF record 11 three pointers leading the Gators over South Carolina. (USATSI)

It started inauspiciously for the top ranked Florida Gators with Patrick Young missing a floating hook shot in front of the basket. But after a Casey Prather steal and offensive rebound on the other end, Michael Frazier hit a three point shot, a foreshadow of things to come. When it was over, Frazier had set a school and SEC record with 11, count em, 11 three point field goals finishing with a career high 37 points which carried the Gators to a huge road victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks 72-46 in Columbia, South Carolina. The Gators tied an SEC record with their 17th conference victory and extended their overall winning streak to 22, including 9 straight on the road.

With their second consecutive SEC title and third in four years already in the bag, the only drama left for these Gators was how well they would play in their last regular season road game, an area they’ve struggled mightily this season despite the winning streak. The answer was pretty darn good. Despite the Gators first half shooting woes, Frazier not withstanding, they turned up the defensive heat in the second half and rode Frazier’s hot hand to turn a close game into a rout.

The Gators jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead holding the Gamecocks scoreless for the first four minutes of the game as their stifling press forced four early South Carolina turnovers. The Gamecocks, however, recovered from the early deficit to take a small lead. They then kept it close throughout the first half by beating the Gators normally solid defense into the lane and crashing the offensive boards while the Gators settled for far too many perimeter shots by players not named Michael Frazier and were somewhat flat footed on the boards.

“I thought we really defended well in both halves,” head coach Billy Donovan said afterward. “I thought we really got hurt on the glass. Transition, they tipped a couple of balls in, they kept balls live. Their front court I think they had 15 points and 9 rebounds in the first half.

The Gators went into halftime clinging to a two point lead at 28-26 as the first half was a usual mixed bag for them. The Gators had settled for an unusually high number of perimeter shots which weren’t falling for any Gator other than Frazier repeatedly failing to work the ball into Patric Young in the post after featuring him early.

“I can’t really say that a lot of the threes we ended up taking were really bad,” Donovan said. “The only thing I was disappointed about us offensively in the first half was, we got the ball to Patric Young early in the half and he got off four or five shots. But he was one for four or five in the first half. But we weren’t balanced enough in my opinion.”

Additionally, while their defensive game plan which had focused on shutting down their two main inside-outside scorers Sindarius Thornwell and Brenton Williams was highly effective it left the Gators vulnerable on the glass and the Gamecocks frontcourt players made them pay getting repeated second chance opportunities helping them keep pace with the Gators.

“The biggest thing we wanted to try to do with both of those guys [Thornwell and Williams] was one, not necessarily deny them all over the court, but we didn’t want to give them a lot of good looks. We wanted them to try to take a lot of tough two point shots. We thought if we could do that and be able to rebound the ball. Now what happened in the first half was because we gave those two guys so much attention what inevitably happened was it left their front court players free to really go to the glass and offensive rebound and we were having to rebound out of rotation which hurt us.”

The Gators also appeared to struggle matching South Carolina’s intensity and effort in the first half, repeatedly getting beaten to contested rebounds and loose balls which also gave them extra possessions and shot opportunities.

“They really kept themselves right there in the game on second chance opportunities. There were not a lot of free throws taken by both teams in the first half. But I thought the fifty-fifty balls, the loose balls, the balls that came off the rim, they were quicker, they were more active, they were more physical than we were in the first half.

Offensively, with the Gators other starters and bench players struggling from the field, Frazier kept the Gators in the game by scoring 15 of the Gators 28 first half points after draining five three point shots. He literally carried the Gators on his back.

“I thought we could have had a better offensive night,” Donovan said. “But no one from the line. Scottie Wilbekin’s 0 for 6, Doe Doe goes 0 for 2. Everybody else really from the three point line was an o-fer, except Frazier. He’s the only guy that made a three point shot.”

He was, however, just warming up.

The Gators opened the second half on an 11-2 run to take an 11 point lead five minutes in and it seemed the Gators might run away with it. However, South Carolina recovered to bring them within four at 39-35 on two Brenton Williams three pointers and a foul shot his first and only points of the game, due largely to another fine defensive performance by point guard Scottie Wilbekin. In Scottie’s defense, the first three pointer which led to a foul and four point play occurred while he was on the bench.

“We fouled him there on that one three point shot which we should have let him take it,” Donovan said. “It was a tough shot, it was off balance, and it’s one of those shots you’ve got to kind of tip your hat to him. Then he made a really hard one, pretty soon after that, over Wilbekin that was another three.”

Adding, “I thought Wilbekin worked as hard as he could and I thought everything that he did shoot was under duress. Even the three he got fouled on was an off-balance shot, the three he made over Wilbekin was a tough, off-balance shot. I didn’t feel like we gave him many clean, clear looks, he had to work for it. I think the biggest thing was we eliminated his number of shot attempts, that was important too.”

After that mini 7-0 Gamecock run was when Michael Frazier really went off and the Gators took total control of the basketball game.

The Gators went on an 18-0 run largely on the strength of Frazier’s dead eye perimeter shooting, offensive adjustments that got them into the lane and onto the free throw line more often, and their improved focus on rebounding.

“I thought in the second half, even though Michael made a lot of threes, we got to the free throw line a lot more than we did in the first half,” said Donovan. “We had a little bit more balance in and around the basket, we got some second chance opportunities, we got the ball back. We were a more balanced team I thought offensively than we were in the first half.”

He added, “I don’t know necessarily what the change was for us in the second half but we did a much, much better job of rebounding and eliminating some of those second chance points.”

By the time the Gamecocks looked up they faced a seeming insurmountable deficit. And South Carolina was never able to recover.

Frazier hit three from behind the arc during the run and then three more before it was over to finish 11-18 from three point range with a career high 37 points. For perspective sake, Frazier’s 37 was only nine short of South Carolina’s total points in the game. His stroke looked really good in pregame warmups and it seemed to carry over into the game for him.

“The ball felt good in warm ups, my shot looked good, felt good,” Frazier said. “Then in the game my teammates did a great job of finding me. I was able to get in a zone there, but I didn’t really feel anything, I was just there. The ball went in and my teammates did a great job of finding me.”

His teammates were more than eager to feed him the ball with how well he was not only knocking them down, but also getting open.

“It [Frazier’s high percentage shooting] was just good for us to be able to keep running our offense,” Patric Young said. “For us to get a Michael Frazier open three as many times as we can we want to get that. If we can get that 60 possessions out of a game we’ll live with that. We’re just really amazed by how open he was getting this whole game and the fact that he was knocking them down was helping us even more. And the fact that he was the only guy to finish in double figures, he carried our team today.”

When Frazier hit his eleventh and final three pointer of the game, the Gators were up 65-42 and it was all over but the crying for the Gamecock faithful who had come in with much promise still glowing from the after effects of a big win over Kentucky on Saturday but instead left dejected from the big loss.

Besides Frazier’s sharp-shooting, the Gators took control by once again playing solid, suffocating defense forcing 19 turnovers including a season high 17 steals and dishing out 16 assists.

“I thought South Carolina did a great job handling our press,” Donovan said. “They didn’t really turn the ball over, we got a couple of steals in the press. We got more steals with back pursuit, back tipping. We got our hands on some basketballs which was good. Of the nineteen turnovers we forced we seventeen were steals. That’s really kind of amazing in a way, because what happens is when there’s steals, it means it’s a live ball turnover which gives you an opportunity to fast break. And I thought in the second half some of those opportunities allowed Frazier to get loose and make some threes.”

The quick transitions off the steals and Frazier’s ability to get open and knock down shots also helped boost the Gators number of assists, finishing with 16.

“It kind of jumps out at you. You see all these numbers. The thing about it is we had sixteen assists which is not bad.”

Frazier wasn’t just a shooter in this one though for the Gators, he had an all around great game as well adding three rebounds, four steals, and one assist. Patric Young was the only other Gator player near double figures finishing with 9 points. He added two rebounds, two steals, an assist, and a blocked shot.

Overall, the Gators shot 42.4% (25-59) from the field and won the rebounding battle (38-34) dominating the second half glass after being minus nine in the first half on the boards. The Gators shot 35.5% (11-31) from three point range but outside of Frazier who was 11-18 , the other players were 0-13 from behind the arc.

With the victory the Gators moved to 28-2 on the season best opening record in school history and at 17-0 they tied the SEC record for conference wins in a season. The Gators can break that record with a win in the regular season finale versus Kentucky on Saturday. The Senior Day game will feature a ton of story lines and will be bittersweet for the Gators four senior starters who came in together in 2010 with much promise and go out as not only three time SEC champions, the only class in Gator history to accomplish that feat, but perhaps as undefeated conference champions and a lock to be a number one seed for only the second time in school history. If they do finish undefeated in conference play it would also be a first for a Gator team.

Tip off for Saturday’s game from the O’Connell Center is scheduled for 12:00 pm eastern time and will be broadcast nationally on CBS.

Florida Gators Basketball: From Chasing Their Tails To Chasing Greatness

“There’s opportunity for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated, focused, and excited during this stretch here because we’ve got seven days left.”

Florida Gator head basketball coach Billy Donovan

Florida Gator basketball is chasing history as the season winds down. (Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports)

Florida Gator basketball is chasing history as the season winds down. (Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s been quite a season for the Florida Gators men’s basketball team. A historic season full of plot twists, struggles, adversity, criticism, and doubt. The season started with more unknowns than a grab bag with starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin on the bench due to suspension that could have derailed his career at Florida, transfer Damontre Harris booted off the team entirely, incoming freshman McDonald’s All American Chris Walker unable to enroll as he finished online classes needed to graduate and then eligibility issues once he enrolled, and four returning seniors all of whom were previously solid role players but none of which anyone would have thought might lead this team to a number one ranking and possible number one NCAA tournament seed.

Through much of the preconference schedule the Gators struggled to field enough bodies to have adequate practice scrimmages. Throw in injuries to leading scorer Casey Prather, center Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, and freshman point guard Kasey Hill and the Gators struggled to maintain consistency in the starting lineup.

The Gators four senior leaders have persevered and now stand on the edge of greatness. (gatorzone)

The Gators four senior leaders have persevered and now stand on the edge of greatness. (gatorzone)

These Gators have been through so much adversity not only throughout this season but throughout their careers that this senior class has realistically gone from chasing their tails to chasing greatness. That’s been a common theme for Billy Donovan all season when pushing his senior laden squad to fight through, press on, and be always striving for greatness.

 “Hopefully, the greatest thing hasn’t come yet,” Patric Young said. “But as of now, this class has gone through a lot, from guys thinking about transferring to staying in school, to not playing games with injuries, all those things, this team, this senior class, has persevered, stuck together and won.”

It didn’t quite start out so rosy, however.

After losing to Connecticut on a buzzer beater with just enough healthy and available players to finish the game, the Gators were seemingly at a crossroads. At 6-2, the Gators were a very unknown quantity. Short on depth, and perhaps even shorter on leadership, the Gators had no identity. The usually tough defense, a hallmark of Billy Donovan teams, was very inconsistent. The assist to turnover ratio, another important barometer for Donovan teams, was negative. Their three point defense was worse than their two point defense. They looked like anything but the team that had earned three straight Elite Eight berths.

It’s not that they were playing terribly bad, it’s just that they lacked cohesiveness. They were somewhat discombobulated offensively and defensively. Effort was there but timing was not. They were a work in progress. Unfortunately that progress had been retarded due to Scottie Wilbekin’s suspension which kept him from practicing with his teammates for the entirety of the summer. Throw in Will Yeguete’s slow recovery in the offseason from knee surgery and backups Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith being new to the lineup and having to feel their way somewhat in the dark and it becomes all too clear why the Gators struggled with their cohesiveness and consistency.

“One of the areas we were behind on I felt,” Billy Donovan said earlier in the season. “We were behind in terms of these guys playing together because of suspensions, injuries, and a lack of cohesiveness.”

Despite all the turmoil, hardship, and adversity the Gators recovered from the two early season losses to take off on a current 21 game winning streak opening 16-0 in conference play for the first time in school history and nearing the SEC record for conference wins in a season (17).

Now with two games remaining in the regular season, the Gators have already clinched their 2nd consecutive SEC title and their third in four years. What’s next? Well for one thing the rise in the polls and the winning streak create a lot of unwanted issues for the Gators.

“With what we’re dealing with right now, I’ve seen players and teams lose their way and lose their identity,” head coach Billy Donovan said. “I think it’s very, very easy to have that happen.”

The media attention, the fan expectations, excitement over winning streaks and breaking records is all heady stuff. It can disrupt even the most focused of teams. It can totally derail a season of hope and promise. It can lay ruin to some of the hardest working teams and destroy everything they’ve built.

“We’ve been a team that has gone through this process since the season started,” Donovan said. “We’ve worked hard, we’ve been the same each and every day in practice, we’ve strived to get better, we’ve strived to be the best we can be, they give a great effort. But the minute you start losing sight of your identity of who you are because of all this other stuff, sometimes it’s hard to regain your identity. And that’s the challenge right now.”

Often when a team reaches a pinnacle during a season, the external influences, sometimes referred to as “noise”, can be more challenging than the opponents on the schedule. Billy Donovan has been very guarding of that with this team as the season has progressed much like a mother with her child.

“The one thing I’ve talked to them about protecting is protecting their identity and who they are,” said Donovan. “In order to protect your identity you’ve got to come every single day with the understanding that you got to stick to the process of what goes in to getting prepared for each game.”

Protect their identity. The identity they struggled for much of the season to create. Slowly, the team has come together and gelled on both sides of the ball. Scottie Wilbekin stepped into the leadership void marvelously after working too hard to be a scorer early in the season and he’s taken on the role of facilitator more of late.

“I think one of the things that happened (was) when he first came back (from his five game suspension) he was getting a lot of assists,” Donovan said of Wilbekin. “Then I thought after a few games it went the other way. He was scoring more points and he wasn’t getting as many assists. I thought he got too offensive-minded in terms of trying to create and maybe do a little bit too much. I think now he’s back to playing a little bit more balanced. I think he’s done better.

And, oddly, with him focusing more on running the offense and getting others involved and not pressing his offensive game, he has become a better offensive player overall. He’s taking more natural shots within the framework of the offense rather than pressing and it has led to him shooting at a higher percentage and has allowed him to become Mr. Clutch for the Gators. Game after game during this winning streak particularly once they got into conference play, Scottie has hit big shots when they’ve needed them down the stretch, both field goals and free throws. When the Gators were staring defeat in the face on the road at Arkansas, Wilbekin stepped up and hit a huge jump shot to tie the game and allow them to get into overtime where his clutch free throw shooting helped seal the victory.

His leadership has been more than scoring and assists, however. He’s been the guy to maintain control of the team’s in-game emotions and temperament. When adversity hits, shots aren’t falling, the other team is making unreal shots, referee calls are very inconsistent, you name it-Scottie’s calm “we’ve been down this road before” temperament and attitude helps keep his teammates calm and focused. The past three seasons, the Gators have had huge average scoring margins but their play in close games was atrocious. They turned that around to go 12-2 in games decided in single digits this season and Scottie’s calm leadership is directly responsible for that.

“I think when you’re a point guard, that’s the kind of position you’re put into,” Wilbekin said. “I think I’ve done a better job, a good job, of being more vocal on the court and trying to relay what coach wants as a position on the court. So, just talking to my teammates, encouraging them and trying to get them on the right track.”

Casey Prather came out of nowhere to lead the Gators in scoring this season and for much of the season he was in the top ten in the SEC before injuries sidelined him somewhat. Still he is playing much better than any of his other seasons in Gainesville by focusing on his specific skillset and working within that framework.

“Prather’s another clear understanding,” Donovan said on Monday. “A guy that wanted to be a jump shooter when he first got here and never played to his strengths. And it was a part of him that had stubbornness, which makes him a good player. He wanted to prove that he could shoot jump shots. But when he got to a place that he says this is not who I am, I’ve got to do other things, his game started to take off.”

Defensively, they’ve been somewhat tighter and more communicative as the season has progressed. They still have their lapses and breakdowns but, for the most part, they’ve done really well of late forcing teams to fight the entire game to get the ball up court, of pushing them to take tough shots late in the shot clock, and of just being plain disruptive both in the half and full court games. Even in games where stat-wise they didn’t look so great defensively, they still do an amazing job of limiting possessions and number of shots.

Still it’s been a huge battle for the Gators to maintain their intensity and focus with the grind of the conference season adding to the external factors.

“The hardest part for our guys I think has been over the last two weeks is emotionally getting to a level-physically we’re fine- but it is an emotional grind every day and getting themselves ready to that level I think is the challenging piece for our team,” Donovan said.

“I think going into this last week or so…we hadn’t really put two halves together,” Donovan added after the LSU game. “And I think our guys, at least our older guys, are mature enough that when you make those points to them and bring those things up to them they’re pretty good at listening to what you’re saying.”

“They have good buy-in-ability to say ok these are things we need to get better at.  With everything that was going on the last week, with where we got ranked, the SEC at Vanderbilt at least clinching a share to Thursday winning it outright to all the stuff with wins and everything else. I told our guys ‘what does that have to do with us? We need to look at how we’re playing right now’. If we’re going to get wrapped up in all this other stuff that’s going on, where everything looks rosy on the outside, it’s not rosy right now, it’s just not.”

The last few games heading into LSU, in particular, the Gators looked very beatable almost playing down to the level of their opponents and almost getting beat. Again, it came down to a lack of focus and intensity for the Gators.

“Coming out of that two game road stand at Kentucky and at Tennessee, we did not play well here at home against Auburn, I didn’t feel like we played great at Ole Miss, and I didn’t feel like we played great at Vanderbilt,” Donovan said. “And I told our guys-sometimes when everything looks rosy on the outside of all these different things and people look at the bottom line result, I’m still looking at-how is our team playing? I didn’t feel like we played up to our ability and our potential. I think if you look at our defensive numbers from the last few games, from the three point line, from two point field goal percentage, it wasn’t great. I told our guys, a lot of these things that are out there that are swirling around our team that have nothing to do with how we’re playing. And right now we need to be playing better basketball. We’re not playing well enough. I thought offensively, we wasted a lot of possessions over the last week or so. We didn’t get enough out of particular possessions.”

But that’s the difference in having a young team and an older, mature team like Donovan’s Gators. They worked very hard to regain their focus and intensity and to correct the mistakes they had been making.

“I think the last two days our guys have come back and have really been committed to trying to shore up some of those things, get better in those areas,”  according to Donovan.

“I told our guys that this [LSU game] was going to be a game that we were going to really find out a little bit more about ourselves in terms of how we were going to respond, what kind of commitment we were going to make to make improvements in areas that we needed to improve on.”

So Donovan has stressed very strongly to the team that it’s identity is the only thing it should be playing to protect.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve tried to get across is that when you get to this point in time of the season, you don’t want to play like you’re trying to protect something,” Donovan said. “Where you’re back on your heels, and we don’t want to lose being number one, and we don’t want to lose again at home, we want to keep the streak going.”

“Once you get into trying to avoid things and trying to prevent things from happening, I think inevitably you get tight, you get frozen, you don’t play. And the biggest things for us I’ve tried to explain to our guys is there are things out there for us to chase. What are we going to chase right now, what are we going to go after.”

What are these guys chasing now that the league title has been won? Greatness. Plain and simple. Not winning streaks or tournament seeds, but greatness.

“Our guys are pretty grounded,” Donovan said. “If you look at it, what are we actually playing for when the league championship part of it is over with? What are we playing for? I’ve never been a big believer in playing for seeding. Our guys don’t even know what that means. They don’t even know how that works.”

“Tonight these guys broke the single season number of wins during a regular season of any team in the history of this program. That to me is a significant milestone. So they’re chasing something right now. There’s two games remaining right now, it’s an 18 game league schedule, there’s an opportunity for them to come back and continue on with what they’re doing. So there’s opportunity for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated, focused, and excited during this stretch here because we’ve got seven days left.”

Patric Young summed it up.

 “That was definitely his (Donovan’s) idea. I think as he saw the results at the beginning of the season, winning so many games in a row, breaking records and all that, he just sees the ceiling of this team is really high and he wants to motivate us to keep striving for greatness. We can do that every game; we can do that every practice. We just need to focus in on that each opportunity we get.”

And the pursuit of greatness means focusing day to day and game to game on the task at hand and not getting caught up in the externals such as the number one ranking or tournament seeding possibilities.

“We know that having the number one ranking doesn’t really mean anything when you have the season still going on,” Casey Prather said. “We just try to pursue greatness and that’s what we trying to do every day.”

And that pursuit has made them a better, stronger team as the season has progressed.

“I think we’re a lot different,” Prather added. “Our defense is completely better. We’ve got a lot of guys that’s healthy right now so that helps a lot. I feel like we just continue to try to get better, strive for greatness.”

With two games left in the regular season, there is light at the end of the tunnel which should give them some extra added motivation in their pursuit of greatness.

“We try to come out with the same motivation every game,” Wilbekin said. “But I guess if there’s anything we could just see the light at the end of the tunnel. We only have two games left now, we want to finish out strong.”

And for sure the head man in charge will do what is necessary to feed that motivation amongst his players.

“Well, he’s always on edge himself,” Young said of coach Donovan. “And I’m sure he even gets tired of the process sometimes, and he fights human nature. Running baseline runners 45 times in one practice for like 20 minutes was not fun. But he just keeps us motivated so that when it comes down to it these little things, it needs to be like we don’t even think about it. We need to get it done and make plays. He always has some type of speech to help keep us motivated and doing those things.”

So after all the hardship and adversity and with two games left in the regular season, a 16-0 record in the SEC, a 21 game winning streak, a 31 game home winning streak, and a number one NCAA tournament seed hanging in the balance, what’s left for this team to chase?

Only the pursuit of greatness.

Florida Gators Put Shooting Woes Aside, Dominate LSU 79-61

Dorian Finney-Smith led the Gators with 16 points off the bench vs LSU. (Yahoo)

Dorian Finney-Smith led the Gators with 16 points off the bench vs LSU. (Yahoo)

The Florida Gators basketball team finally put it all together on Saturday against the LSU Tigers. After struggling offensively for most of the season and especially the last few games, the Gators gave a glimpse of what happens when they make shots.

The Gators jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead and never let up dominating the overmatched Tigers 79-61 extending their school record home winning streak to 31 straight and their overall winning streak to 21, which also extends a school record as well.

As usual the Gators defense was suffocating and disruptive as they pressed the Tigers from start to finish and harrassed them into 15 turnovers never allowing the Tigers to get comfortable offensively in their halfcourt post game.

“I thought we did a really good job doubling the post,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “I thought the press was good, I thought we were disruptive defensively in the full court, I thought we were disruptive in the half court. I thought we did a good job on O’Bryant. I know he got 18 points but he was still 6 for 14 which was under fifty percent for a front court guy. We gave up some offensive rebounds to him but I thought our post traps were really, really good for most of the game. Overall we did a pretty good job I thought with our post traps.”

The Gator defense was so disruptive in the first half that the Tigers finished the half with as many turnovers as field goals (9).

Offensively, on the other hand, the Gators appeared to be more than comfortable hitting three of their first four shots from the floor including their first two three point shots and continuously firing away from long range as the Tigers struggled to defend the Gators from outside.

“What happened was they [LSU defense] got spread out sometimes and they got two guys underneath the basket and our guys were spaced and we had pretty much really good looks from behind the line and they went in for us,” Donovan said.

It’s not clear what was more surprising for the Gators in the first half- the number of three point shots they made or the number they took. For a team that averages 18 three point attempts per game, the Gators threw up 14 in the first half alone, draining nine which is more than they’ve made in any half this season.

“The one thing I was a little bit concerned about was I think at one point in time maybe with about six minutes to go in the first half over half of our shots had been threes,” Donovan said. “But we were six for ten from the line so we were shooting sixty percent which was great, but I still felt like we needed to have something at the basket too just to offset that. But there were so many threes that were available, I was just happy our guys shot the ball with confidence and it was good to see the ball go in the basket for those guys.”

Overall, the Gators hit 13-23 (56.5%) from behind the arc and 31-54 (57.4%) overall from the field. The Gators were led offensively by Dorian Finney-Smith who had 16 points on 50% shooting from the field (5-10, 4-8 from three) part of a strong bench effort by the Gators which outscored the Tiger bench 28-2. 

” I thought we got really, really good minutes from our bench all the way around,” Donovan said.

Finney-Smith, after struggling offensively through a tough stretch has seemed to find himself the last two games. He led the team in scoring against both LSU and Vanderbilt with a combined 35 points in the two games on 8-16 (50%) shooting from beyond the three point line. Of all the Gator players who do different things, Finney-Smith is perhaps the most versatile player on the squad because he can do so many things.

“He stretches the defense,” “Donovan said of Finney-Smith. Doe-Doe has got the ability if you look at his stats in practice that he’s shot the ball well from behind the line he just went through a stretch there he didn’t. But I think as a coach, you want to stick with him because if you stick with him it gives him some confidence and then he can have some games like he’s had the last two games against Vanderbilt and this. And now from an offensive standpoint we probably get a little bit more of a power team with Yeguete and Young. And then when we bring him in we can really space the floor because he can put it on the ground, he can pass it, and he can shoot it. He’s a handful because he can offensive and defensive rebound. So when he’s shooting the ball like he did tonight it really opens up things for everybody.”

DeVon Walker also continued his stellar play of late in limited minutes off the bench hitting 2-3 three pointers for 6 points. He has really been showing an improved confidence and level of play of late.

“He’s been good,” Donovan said of Walker. “He was dealing with some migraine headaches before the game. He didn’t seem himself, but he’s played well. He’s getting better and better. I’ve got confidence in him. He played well at Ole Miss, he gave us a good boost, I thought he made a big three point shot in the second half against Vanderbilt the other night. And then I thought he gave us some good minutes here today.”

Chris Walker had two blocks and a career high 6 rebounds vs LSU. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

Chris Walker had two blocks and a career high 6 rebounds vs LSU. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

Another bench player who played well against LSU was freshman Chris Walker who had perhaps his best game for the Gators in his short career getting extended minutes and scoring two points with six rebounds and two blocked shots. The fourteen minutes he played was the most floor time he’s had since being cleared by the NCAA prior to the Missouri game.

“It was good to see Chris [Walker] be able to get some more minutes,” Donovan said. “This was a good game for him because LSU is a great high-low team offensively. They’ve got a lot of weapons but it’s pretty easy for Chris he’s going to be playing post defense or he’s going to be standing at the high post. I think that was a good game for him where he could maybe inject some of his athleticism, rebounding, and some of those things.”

Freshman point guard Kasey Hill also played very well chipping in four points, five assists, and two steals in his first game back from an ankle injury. It was easy to see why the Gators were missing him the last few games. His speed getting the ball up the floor in transition as well as his quickness and athleticism driving the ball into the lane and his passing abilities were all on display against LSU. He does appear to be more comfortable in the Gators offense than he did earlier in the season. Overall, the Gator bench got good minutes and asserted itself against LSU prompting the game announcer to make the statement that the Gators have four guys on the bench that could start for any other SEC program.

“I thought we were able to utilize our bench and kind of get everybody involved,” said Donovan. “I thought the minutes were distributed pretty well, and pretty balanced.”

Considering where the Gators were early in the season, struggling to find enough bodies to scrimmage in practice and reeling from a lack of depth in games, the strong bench effort against LSU came at a good time as the Gators close out the regular season and prepare for tournament play. 

“You want to be playing well this time of year,” Donovan said.

You also want to know who you can count on from the bench. On Saturday, the Gators found a deep and talented bench playing with improved confidence both offensively and defensively.

It wasn’t only the bench, however, who did the damage for the Gators. Michael Frazier hit 4-6 (66.7%) from three point range finishing with 14 points while Casey Prather went 6-7 from the field and also scored 14 points. Frazier also had 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and a steal. Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin finished with 11 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals.

It was a strong, dominant, and, perhaps even more importantly, complete effort from start to finish both offensively and defensively. One of the Gators biggest issues throughout the season, besides the shooting woes, has been their inability to play a complete game. While, they have been winning, 21 straight at this point, they have struggled somewhat in the first or second half of games. They’ve struggled to maintain focus and struggled to maintain a consistent effort for a full forty minute game. Not in this one though. Against LSU, the Gators started strong and maintained their focus, effort, and intensity throughout taking a 16 point halftime lead and pushing it to as much as 22 throughout the second half before bringing in scrubs with three minutes remaining.

“I think going into this last week or so… we hadn’t really put two halves together,” Donovan said. “And I think our guys, at least our older guys, are mature enough that when you make those points to them and bring those things up to them they’re pretty good at listening to what you’re saying and I think when you back it up as a coach in terms of what you’re talking about they have good buy-in-ability to say ok these are things we need to get better at. In practice, those are things we tried to work on to get better at.”

It appeared to pay off, at least for one game. Before Saturday’s game, Donovan had challenged his team to see how they would respond to this three game stretch of sub-par play.

“I told our guys that this was going to be a game that we were going to really find out a little bit more about ourselves in terms of how we were going to respond,” Donovan said. “What kind of commitment we were going to make to make improvements in areas that we needed to improve on.”

They seemed to respond as well as Donovan could have hoped. The long SEC schedule can be brutal especially for a team seemingly chasing it’s own tail.

“The hardest part for our guys I think has been over the last two weeks is emotionally getting to a level-physically we’re fine- but it is an emotional grind every day and getting themselves ready to that level I think is the challenging piece for our team,” said Donovan.

It’s all about getting through the grind and finding challenges to chase and not getting caught up in the hoopla surrounding a number one ranking or undefeated conference season or home winning streaks.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve tried to get across is that when you get to this point in time of the season, you don’t want to play like you’re trying to protect something,” Donovan said.

“Once you get into trying to avoid things and trying to prevent things from happening, I think inevitably you get tight, you get frozen, you don’t play. And the biggest things for us I’ve tried to explain to our guys is there are things out there for us to chase.”

“Tonight these guys broke the single season number of wins during a regular season of any team in the history of this program. That to me is a significant milestone. So they’re chasing something right now. There’s two games remaining right now, it’s an 18 game league schedule, there’s an opportunity for them to come back and continue on with what they’re doing. So there’s opportunity for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated, focused, and excited during this stretch here because we’ve got seven days left.”

And for one day they did it perfectly according to plan. With two games left in the regular season and then the SEC and NCAA tournaments upcoming, hopefully they’re peaking and can continue with their stellar across the board play.

With the win the Gators moved to 16-0 in the SEC setting a new school record for conference wins in a season as well as tying the SEC record for regular season conference victories.

Next up for the Gators is a trip to South Carolina on Tuesday before wrapping up the regular season at home against Kentucky next Saturday. Tip off for the South Carolina game is 7 pm eastern and will be broadcast on ESPNU.

Florida Gators Use Familiar Script to win 15th Consecutive

Florida Gator basketball team used a familiar script to win their 15th consecutive game. (Gatorzone)

Florida Gator basketball team used a familiar script to win their 15th consecutive game. (Gatorzone)

The old saying goes “familiarity breeds contempt”. For the Florida Gators men’s basketball team it breeds victory. 15 consecutive victories to be exact. Against the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday, the Gators used a script that has become all to familiar to fans. Big early lead gets wiped out due to defensive and offensive lapses making for a close game heading into the half and then using great halftime adjustments they run away with it in the second half.

Sound familiar?

The Gators opened up with a 12-2 run largely on the strength of their suffocating press defense which forced four quick Tide turnovers. The score was 8-0 Gators barely a minute into the game before Alabama even crossed the halfcourt line. Then the Gators appeared to lose focus as often is the case in the first half for them which allowed the Tide to get back into the game. The culprit? Turnovers and poor offensive decision making.

Sound familiar?

“We got off to a really good start,” Gator head coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “I think we were up 10 zip, maybe it was, or 10-2. And then we had a lull there for about 6 or 8 minutes where we turned the ball over, we made some really, really poor decisions in open floor situations. We tried to interior pass and we allowed them obviously to capitalize on some of our turnovers coming back the other way.”

They also had several defensive lapses that left the Tide with open three point looks and easy drives into the lane resulting in fouls and Tide free throws. Trevor Releford, who Donovan admitted was the defensive focus coming in to the game, had 16 first half points going 3-5 from beyond the three point arc. Obviously, that focus didn’t work.

“He (Releford) just got wide open shots and he got it going,” Gator forward Will Yeguete said. “And he’s a really good player, the kind of player that if he gets it going he gets more confident. And I think he had a really good first half.”

The Gators defense, or lack thereof, had a lot to do with that.

“He (Releford) did (shoot well in first half) but we also let him get open for a couple of threes, then he got going,” senior guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “It’s partly on us but he’s a good player so if you give him an inch he’ll be able to take advantage.”

Besides giving up numerous open three point looks in the first half the Gators also had trouble containing the Tide’s quickness in the lane which put them on the line far too much to satisfy coach Donovan.

“I thought that Alabama did a really, really good job in the game of putting us in some binds where we had to guard a lot of straight line drives, hard drives and we fouled entirely too much,” Donovan said. “We put them to the free throw line 19 times. We had a really hard time defending them. I thought they attacked us very well.”

Overall, however, the Gators defensive effort was poor especially in the first half. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near as good as they have been playing of late. The lapses were across the board. Late reactions, poor efforts against screening action, and a very subdued effort.

“I thought from a defensive standpoint we were late reacting, we didn’t handle a lot of their drives, and we fouled too much,” Donovan said.

Scottie Wilbekin added, “we got out to an early lead and we kind of got a little lackadaisical,” adding “we just didn’t play hard we let off the gas a little bit.”

As has been the case all season, though, the Gators made significant halftime adjustments that helped them take control of the game in the second half.

“We really made a huge emphasis coming out of the half that we were going to really get up on three point shooters,” Donovan said. “What we did was kind of shorten up our pick and roll coverage where our bigs were getting back to their man a little quicker because we put ourselves in some vulnerable situations because we gave Releford so much attention. But Releford didn’t score a lot in pick and roll, it was a lot of off the ball where the ball found him he knocked down a three, a couple one on one plays he made, a couple of times in transition he got fouled.”

Donovan added, “I think the way we win game plan-wise we made some adjustments at the half which I think helped us a little bit, and we eliminated the three point line, we just fouled too much.”

Sound familiar?

Asked about what coach Donovan said to the players during halftime, Scottie Wilbekin said simply,

“He was just saying we got to do better on defense. They were shooting I think 62% through the first half. So he was just saying we got to do a better job, we’re not guarding the way we usually do.”

Indeed they weren’t guarding the way they have the last few weeks. But did coach get on to them?

“Yeah he got after us a little bit. He just said they’re playing harder than us and they were playing harder than us.”

Despite the Gators appearing to play better defense in the second half, Donovan was unimpressed with the defense overall in this game.

“I thought we were bad the whole game to be honest with you,” Donovan said. “I don’t know what it was for the game but at the half they were at 1.24 DER (Defensive Efficiency Rating) which is really bad. They obviously shot an enormously high percentage. I thought a couple things with us defensively. One, I think I got asked the other day about what makes us so great defensively and I think I made the comment that it’s not a thing that just happens, it’s an every day grind to be really, really good. And we were not where we needed to be. Thank God we had some offense today that helped us.”

Offense is one area that the Gators played much better. They shot 62% (31-50) from the floor overall and did a good job with ball movement, particularly to close out the first half.

“I thought we closed the (first) half offensively real well,” Donovan said. “We scored on 9 of our last 10 possessions. We tied the game.”

They continued to play better offensively in the second half with patience and good ball movement taking control of the game on the strength of a 25-7 run which resulted in a fifteen point lead with 8:39 reamining.

“I thought in the second half when we got that eight or nine point lead before it went to fifteen, a lot of it was against their zone because we did a really good job against their zone,” Donovan said. “Then we forced them to go man, they went man and we were still effective.”

As is usually the case with these Gators, their defense sparked the offensive run that took them from 41-39 deficit to a 64-49 lead. 

“I thought there were a couple of key points in the game to really put the game out of reach. I thought the first play was, in the press, we had two back to back steals, Frazier knocked down a three took the lead from maybe twelve to fifteen. And then we stole it again, we moved the ball and it ended up in Patric’s hands, he got fouled underneath the basket.

Despite the fifteen point lead, however, the victory was never secure until less than a minute remaining as the Tide continued to fight until the end and the Gators allowed them to hang around.

“We missed both free throws (after Young was fouled) to put us up seventeen;” Donovan said, “it stays at fifteen, they come down and score, it goes to thirteen. And then right around the next possession I think it was still thirteen, there was a missed shot we played really good defense and we didn’t block out on the weakside and they got a I think a three point play or two more free throws. Those two plays there with our missed free throws cut the lead from fifteen right down to nine. We lost like six points in a very short period of time where if we could have got that rebound, could have made a couple of free throws, I think we could have gotten up by eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and then it becomes really challenging. but give them credit, they made the plays to keep themselves alive in the game.”

So the Gators used a very familiar script to win their 15th consecutive game, 29th in a row at home, and remain undefeated in the SEC (10-0). They do, however, have plenty to work on and get better at as they approach the meat of their SEC schedule.

“I’m happy we won,” Donovan said. “I think as a coach you’re always looking for areas to improve. I’m proud of these guys in terms of their commitment each and every day to work hard and to try to get better. They’ve been a really great team, we’ve got good chemistry, we’ve got good connectivity. They get along very well, they want to win, they play for each other, they’re unselfish. All those things are very, very positive.”

With upcoming road games against the top half of the SEC, the Gators will certainly need to cut out the offensive lapses, defensive lulls, and loss of focus when they get a lead. And despite opening 10-0 in conference play, Donovan isn’t necessarily impressed.

“On the other side of it (10-0 SEC mark), you don’t know how your league schedule when it’s given to you, how it’s going to shake out. Going on the road to Mississippi State is a hard game, it’s a hard game to play. Going to Auburn is a hard game to play. Going to Arkansas is a hard game to play. Going to Alabama is a hard game to play. Those are hard road games. But in reality if you look at the league standings right now, most of our road games have been against the bottom half of this league. And most of our schedule has been against the bottom half of this league. Now we did play Tennessee here at home, we did play Missouri here at home, but most of our games have been against the bottom half of the league. And now with four of the next five on the road, going to Tennessee on Tuesday and only having one home game in the next two weeks, and then five of your last eight are on the road, it’s all going to even out. So I’m not overly joyous and great because we’re 10-0, I think it will all shake out at the end after 18 games and we’re past the half point right now. The thing I’m most proud about our guys has been to keep them really together, playing hard playing well together.”

If these Gators continue to play like they did on Saturday, the 15 game winning streak could easily be history.

“It’s kind of gone our way,” Donovan warned, “but we’re going to end up playing some teams right now where you played defense like we did tonight and you’re not going to win.

From here, the Gators begin a two game road slate beginning on Tuesday night against Tennessee, a team they dominated in their last match up in the O’Connell Center, before going to Kentucky next Saturday. Tuesday night’s game is scheduled for a 7 pm eastern tip off and is the third straight game to be broadcast nationally on ESPN. The Kentucky game will also be live on ESPN.

Florida Gators Copy and Paste Win Over Alabama 78-69 for Their 15th Consecutive

Copy. Paste. Gators win.

It was a tale of two halves for the Gators today against Alabama in the O’Dome. Using a formula Gator fans have gotten all too used to, the Gators used a strong second half to run away from the Crimson Tide 78-69 for their 15th consecutive victory and 29th straight at home.

Scottie Wilbekin leads the Gators over Alabama for their 15th consecutive win and 29th straight at home. (Palm Beach Post)

Scottie Wilbekin leads the Gators over Alabama for their 15th consecutive win and 29th straight at home. (Palm Beach Post)

The Gators started strong in this one using their pressure defense to force turnovers and jump out to a quick 12-2 lead barely four minutes into the game. Alabama regained their poise and settled down from there using a 20-6 run to take a four point lead with just under 7 minutes left in the first half. The Gators held tight and ended the half strong going into halftime tied at 36. It was the most points the Gators have given up in the first half all season at home.

After playing much improved defensively the last few weeks, the Gators took a step back in the first half against the Tide giving up wide open threes, being late on help, and allowing the Tide easy drives to the basket. Trevor Releford led all scorers at the half with 16 on 4-6 shooting from the field and 3-5 from three.

As has been their M.O. all season, however, the Gators made significant halftime adjustments and dominated the second half using a 25-7 run to to take a 64-49 lead with under 9 minutes to go in the game. The Tide hung around throughout, however, closing within 7 but could never get over the hump as the Gators closed out the victory.

The Gators were extremely balanced offensively as all five starters finished in double figures shooting an outstanding 62% (31-50) from the field. They also had a season high 22 assists with great ball movement repeatedly getting the ball into the paint.

Scottie Wilbekin led the way for the Gators with 16 points including 3 huge three point shots, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal. Casey Prather chipped in 15 points with 6 rebounds and 3 assists. Michael Frazier scored 14, while Will Yeguete had a fantastic game scoring 12 with 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and two steals.

Patric Young finished with 11 points and two huge blocks while Dorian Finney-Smith continued his stellar play off the bench with four points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, and a block. Freshman Chris Walker followed up his debut performance with 4 points on two alley oops in four minutes which threatened to raise the O’Dome roof.

Defensively, the Gators played much better in the second half holding Releford, who led all scorers, to only 3 points through much of the second half before getting some points late to finish with 25. The Tide still shot a stellar 55% overall from the field but were forced into 16 turnovers leading to 27 Gator points.

With the victory the Gators move to 21-2 overall on the season and 10-0 in the SEC. The Gators begin a tough two game road stretch at Tennessee on Tuesday with a trip to Kentucky looming on Saturday. Tuesday night’s game is scheduled for a 7 pm eastern tipoff and will be broadcast live on ESPN the third of four straight Gator games airing on the network.